Stopping the Aging Process May Be Mathematically Impossible

Researchers find that removing low-functioning cells can slow aging—but allows cancer cells to proliferate

Wrinkled hands
sanjagrujic via iStock

The quest for immortality is almost as old as humanity itself. From Sumerian king Gilgamesh to Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León to modern-day biomedical researcher Aubrey de Grey, people have long searched for the secret to everlasting life. But we still haven't found it—and, according to new research, we are likely searching in vain.

Joanna Masel, ecology and evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, and postdoctoral student Paul Nelson argue that it’s mathematically impossible to slow aging in multicellular organisms. They recently detailed their findings in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Aging is mathematically inevitablelike, seriously inevitable. There's logically, theoretically, mathematically no way out," Masel says in a press release.

As Newsweek’s Hannah Osborne explains, though cells constantly multiply and replace themselves, time causes them to slowly lose function, and eventually die. But some cells also accelerate their multiplication, which could lead to the formation of cancerous cells.

These different types of cells in your body also compete for resources, allowing them to weed out non-functioning cells and potentially dangerous mutations. The problem is, this natural selection is imperfect. But what if you could perfectly weed out the low-functioning cells?

Though scientists haven't yet worked out how to do this biologically, Masel and Nelson were curious what would happen to the balance of cells if this selection was perfect. To investigate, they created a mathematical model that mimics the competition between cells in your body.

What they found is that eliminating the sluggish cells actually allows potential cancer cells to spread more easily. Conversely, eliminating cancer cells actually allows greater accumulation of the sluggish cells.

It's a "catch-22,” Nelson says in a press release. "You're stuck between allowing these sluggish cells to accumulate or allowing cancer cells to proliferate, and if you do one you can't do the other. You can't do them both at the same time."

If Masel and Nelson are correct, they may hold the—admittedly scientific rather than mythical—key to immortality seekers’ quests: the fight for survival between sluggish and cancer cells ends with the body's breakdown. And there is no way to stop it.

"We have a mathematical demonstration of why it's impossible to fix both problems,” Masel says. No matter how you try to stop it things will get worse. “Either all of your cells will continue to get more sluggish, or you'll get cancer," she says.

There's one basic reason behind this, Masel says: everything eventually breaks. "It doesn't matter how much you try and stop them from breaking, you can't,” she says.